What can we publish?

Over the weekend, I experienced an unexpected loss. In between then and now, I’ve wondered what I can say about it on this blog. It feels wrong to publish another ordinary, upbeat post without acknowledging the fact that a big part of my life has suddenly changed. But because I’m not the only one affected by this change, it would be inappropriate to expose any specific details.

We’re all aware of our online presence at all times. To the people who haven’t seen me in years (most of my Facebook friends) and the people who have never met me (most of my WordPress followers), my online presence IS my identity. To the people who know me most intimately, my online presence is only one persona. To me, it’s right that my in-person and my online personas should be separate. The real-world me needs to have something that online me can’t.

But blogging – and writing in general – blurs that line significantly. A writer I spoke to this summer told me that the best writers are the ones who expose themselves. “Keep a journal,” he advised me. “The more you share with readers, the more interested they’ll be.” I don’t want to expose my own pettiness or embarrassing moments any more than you do, but the difference between us is that you’ll be more fascinated by me if you feel like you know something that should be secret.

David Sedaris, one of my favorite authors, tackles this subject in many of his essays, most of which are memoirs focused on his family members. In Sedaris’ essay “Repeat After Me,” he says of his sister Lisa:

She’s afraid to tell me anything important, knowing that I’ll only turn around and write about it.

In another essay, “Etiquette Lesson,” Sedaris describes his sister Tiffany’s habit of pretending to open a jar to disguise the fact that she is on the toilet while talking on the phone. (If you don’t catch my meaning, just listen to the essay.) It doesn’t get much worse than that, right?

It’s not like Sedaris’ siblings particularly want this attention, but over the years, they’ve accepted it. If I manage to make a career out of writing, I imagine that people will view me with the same expectation that Sedaris’ siblings carry. Writers harvest stories from life that happens around them; it’s a fact.

But what happens when your own story becomes intertwined with someone else’s? Whose story is it then? And when and where can you tell it? Or maybe you should only tell parts of it – the unobjectionable parts, the parts that are general knowledge.

In an essay that I’ve referenced before, Andrew Bird tackles this problem:

I’m getting the urge to write about something that’s happening right now that’s too personal and painful to discuss in this forum. But then why is it O.K. to put it in a song? Why is the song safe? Is it safe? And I realize that I might be staying away from this subject because of this essay and that makes me want to scrap it. But here it is as it’s beginning to exist. There’s no telling how it will turn out.

What happened last week falls into this category. It’s a story that can’t be told here or now, but it’s one that’s going to continue to shape me, and that will come through in the way I think and write and live. I’m particularly interested in the fact that Bird distinguishes between forms of expression. There’s something about a song’s use of poetic lyrics and evocative instrumental moments that leaves room and admits to not knowing everything. It’s harder to be ambiguous in an essay without losing the reader completely. An essay craves concrete definition, something I can’t give while I come to terms with this event.

I’m working on a research grant application for a project that I hope to pursue next summer. The subject is sensitive and focused on fractured familial relationships between real people, so I’ve been preparing by reviewing the ethical standards that my university uses to gauge the appropriateness of using  human subjects in research. Meanwhile, St. Andrews’ matriculation paperwork defined freedom of speech as a right that “is not absolute.” Factors such as national security and public safety limit free speech: “The interplay between such competing rights creates boundaries and limitations on what can be said and the manner of expression.”

Similarly, sometimes there are stories that can hurt, hinder, expose. We all know some piece of information that, if revealed in the right moment to the wrong people, could injure someone infinitely. Shaping a narrative gives the writer power to include and omit at will. Not everything needs to be put down in black words on white paper; some stories keep living and breathing and changing and growing outside of any page. They can’t be contained. Some stories are meant to be told in whispers or novels or poems or songs or phone calls. Not everything should be a nonfiction essay.

Before this past weekend, I felt that what I had been writing here was somewhat valuable – as a collection of observations or a reflection on my growing awareness of the world or just as practice at writing and being read. It wasn’t until I considered the possibility of writing about something that was actually vitally important to me that I realized how simple and benign my subjects have been. Bigger, more difficult stories loom in my future. But for today, this forum remains wrong for the plot twist I’m unexpectedly living. For now, this is the story about why I’m not telling the story of what I just lost.

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